Rumors, Lies, and Unreliable Narrators: The Crafting of White Slave Narratives

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:50 PM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
Elisa Camiscioli, Binghamton University (State University of New York)
This paper examines the early twentieth-century debate on the “traffic in women” between Europe and Latin America with reference to the methodological problem of working with rumors, falsehoods, cover stories, and other less-than-reliable testimonies. Inspired by the historian Louise White’s provocative observation that “secrets and lies are not forms of withholding information but forms by which information is valorized,” it seeks to illuminate the social world of “white slavery” by engaging with the testimonies of prostitutes, procurers, and various middlemen involved in the trade. Thus I am not only interested in the circulation of women across the globe, and, specifically, to Buenos Aires; equally compelling is the circulation of stories about the trade which spoke of unwitting innocents, Jewish procurers, mendacious marriage proposals, and victimization. 

While historians have attributed the ubiquitous rumors of white slavery in early twentieth-century Europe to fears of female independence, anti-Semitism, the transportation revolution, and the social hygiene campaigns of middle-class reformers, this paper focuses on the stories told by those participating in the trade. It does so by examining police dossiers on French women returning from Latin America, in addition to the raw data collected for the 1927 League of Nations report on trafficking to Argentina. These documents contain glimpses of several stories: letters from concerned parents, sensationalist press clippings, records of police surveillance, as well as testimonies from women ostensibly victimized by the trade. While it is tempting to equate these testimonies solely with the experience of subaltern women, in fact, their formulaic recounting of the “victim narrative” of white slavery reveals what kind of information women believed was credible to their interlocutors. My analysis is therefore guided by the twin processes of concealment and disclosure employed when crafting white slave narratives, rather than documenting “authentic” experience or dismissing “unreliable” testimony.

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